Saturday, December 11, 2004

Rosen on Nihilism

Correspondent R. L. sends the following excerpt from a book by Stanley Rosen:

(In case you are not interested in the excerpt, you may be interested in this anecdote. I once had a job interview with the Phil. Dept. at Penn. State where Rosen used to teach. As the interview began, I mentioned that I had a cold and that my voice normally sounds different. Rosen quipped: "How does it normally sound?")

Suppose we believe, as do many scientific humanists today, that all psychic or mental phenomena may be reduced to biochemical processes and thereby to mathematically computable energy distributions. What is the status of this belief itself, and finally of the self who believes it? To begin with, if the belief is true, it is itself an instance of a biochemical process, an electrical excitation of the physical organ known as the brain, and so a pattern of extension, matter, or energy. As such, it has no “value” in any sense other than the numerical. Thus, the mere fact of its truth (supposing it to be true) carries with it no rational or scientific recommendations, not to say obligation, that it be believed, that it be regarded as a reasonable belief. If the reasonable is the useful, it is almost certainly unreasonable, because harmful, to accept a doctrine that obliterates the difference in dignity between man and dirt.

On the other hand, if “reasonable” means “true,” and the doctrine in question is true, then we accept it in tacit or explicit deference to the principle, “one ought to accept what is true.” Now what status has this principle? If it is true that one ought to accept the truth, then it cannot be true that truth is always at bottom a mathematical description of energy patterns, since such patterns, if taken to be the final stratum of reality, into which all superficial or illusory strata are to be reduced, provide no basis for the reconstruction of moral or psychological imperatives. If it is not true that one ought to accept the truth (because of the assumption that “true” and “ought” are incompatible), but merely that we sometimes have a propensity to do so, then truth, and so reason, must be distinguishable from motives determining what we accept or believe.

In other words, there is no REASON, no REASONABLE reason, for believing the true rather than the false. The mere fact that proposition X is true is insufficient to command the allegiance of a reasonable man to that proposition, especially if it certifies that, qua man, or conscious being who is deliberating whether to accept X, he is an illusion and so does not exist in those terms which alone make rational the debate concerning the acceptance or repudiation of proposition X. On this alternative, then, the FACT that proposition X is true is paradoxically transformed into a VALUE, namely something which we may believe or not as we see fit, or depending upon whether we regard it as worthwhile to believe it. And the transformation is paradoxical because X in effect asserts the radical distinction between facts and values. This self-transformation of the assertion of the principle of contemporary rationalism into a value is equivalent to the transformation of philosophy into poetry by Nietzsche and others.

In the first case, a distinction is made between facts and values which renders values unreasonable. In the second case, facts are redefined as a special kind of values, which means that facts are rendered unreasonable. The contemporary nihilist situation is a synthesis of these two (basically equivalent) processes: the total effect is to make both facts and values unreasonable and valueless. And so there is no real difference, in this context, between scientists and humanists. If it is fatuous to assume that nihilism will be overcome by knowledge of the second law of thermodynamics, it is equally fatuous to assume that it will surrender to an appreciation of poetic style. What then are we to say of the view that man’s salvation lies in the union of such knowledge and such appreciation?

--Stanley Rosen, Nihilism, A Philosophical Essay, pp. 70-71. [underlining and caps mine --R.L.]